Russian spies are very active in NI says ex-Nato officer, after Russia reveals plans for naval excercise off Irish coast

An ex-Nato intelligence officer has warned that Russian intelligence officers and their agents are working in NI.

By Philip Bradfield
Wednesday, 26th January 2022, 1:25 pm
Updated Wednesday, 26th January 2022, 11:16 pm

Philip Ingram, from Co Tyrone, is a former Colonel in British military intelligence who spent seven years at Nato HQ in intelligence and military planning, most of it focusing on Russian threats.

He was speaking in the wake of news that the Russian navy is to carry out artillery exercises 150 miles off the Co Cork coast next month.

Russian and other malign actors like to enter the UK and EU via the Republic of Ireland due to weak security, and because Irish passports are easy to acquire, they are highly prized by such agents, he says.

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Salisbury Novichok poisoning suspects Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are shown on CCTV on Fisherton Road, Salisbury on 04 March 2018. The two Russian nationals were named as suspects in the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia March in 2018. Photo by Metropolitan Police via Getty Images.

But Russian agents inside NI are also “100%” also an issue right now.

“They will be interested in any defence industries, military bases, shipyards,” he told the News Letter. “They will also be looking at anything they can do to disrupt normal government activity both north and south.”

Russian intelligence officers will “100%” have agents inside NI political parties and may fund political activities from front companies, he adds. They will aim to sow discord from sides of the political spectrum at the same time, on both sides of the border.

“One example of this could be through dis-and-misinformation - for example stimulating support for a border poll, or support for loyalist or republican terrorist organisations,” he says.

They will also be likely to try and exacerbate any social grievances which might result in street protests, “at the very least through social media.

“If they feel that it undermines Westminster or Dublin or the EU’s focus away from Russian activities, Russia will put its knife in that crack and wiggle it away as much as possible.”

Russia had close links with Libya when it was supplying shiploads of mainly Soviet weaponry to the IRA, he notes.

Russian agents in NI are likely to speak without any accent and hold non-Russian passports. Traditionally their cover story is working as junior embassy staff, business executives or journalists.

Their preferred agents to recruit may have roles such as engineers or computer experts in sensitive businesses or industries.

As to spotting agents, he advises, “If you have a gut feeling something is wrong there could well be something wrong. So MI5 has got a hotline number if people are concerned about anything.”

There are more Russian intelligence officers in the UK now than during the height of the Cold War, he says, which would have been “several hundred” at that time.

Mr Ingram was echoing many of the claims made by MI5 Director General Ken McCallum in July.

“So to be clear: the activity MI5 encounters day-by-day predominantly comes, in quite varying ways, from state or state-backed organisations in Russia, China and Iran,” he said.

MI5 is aiming to double the amount of MI5 resources going into state threats activity, he said.

“As just one illustration, on professional networking sites we’ve seen over 10,000 disguised approaches from foreign spies to regular people up and down the UK, seeking to manipulate them. To speak directly: if you are working in a high-tech business; or engaged in cutting-edge scientific research; or exporting into certain markets, you will be of interest – more interest than you might think – to foreign spies.”

States are always looking to influence each other; that’s what embassies and diplomats are for, he said.

“But alongside those healthy engagements sit attempts at malign interference: seeking hidden relationships with politicians or other public figures to get them to push another country’s line; hack-and-leak operations intended to achieve political effect; troll farms using social media to sow divisions – or more often, to deepen existing divisions – within our society.

“This leads me to misinformation – the spreading, wittingly or otherwise, of inaccurate or distorted information. There’s a lot of it about. Most misinformation is not deliberate disinformation carefully crafted by foreign spies. But some of it is: some foreign states invest in capabilities to influence discourse in other countries; and they wouldn’t be doing so if they didn’t believe they were getting some benefit. So there is a focused role for organisations like mine to detect and call out any particularly damaging foreign-generated disinformation.”

He added: “For as long as it’s cheap and easy for hostile actors to try to access UK data; or to cultivate initially-unwitting individuals here; or to spread false, divisive information – they are bound to keep doing so.”

Dr William Matchett, a security expert, author and academic, is a former PSNI Det Inspector who spent mostof his career in Special Branch.

“The Kremlin has always been interested in Ireland based on geography, with the added bonus of anti-British elements who will gladly help Moscow,” he told the News Letter. “I would be astounded if Politburo agents are not already here.”

He explained: “After WW2, Stalin progressed the Soviet land grab in Europe that caused the Cold War. In Northern Ireland back then, the national security remit was held by the Special Branch. There was fear of Moscow using communism to infiltrate the government, spread divisive propaganda and destabalise the economy.  Soviet spies tied in with Irish republican dissidents who hate the British, not unlike how the IRA of Sean Russell collaborated with the Nazis.

“The Special Branch ran a desk system to stovepipe all intelligence. There were three desks. The republican desk, the loyalist desk and the red desk. The latter dealt with the communist threat posed by the USSR.  Before the outbreak of the ‘Troubles’ in 1969, the red desk was extremely busy. Obviously, 30-years of violence in Northern Ireland focused intelligence resources on internal threats. Communism never really featured, although there was still some reporting.”

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